Boromir rode all morning through flat fenlands, with Balaróf picking his way gingerly along the broken road that often lost itself entirely in marshy patches, marked by pools of water with tussocks of low grasses poking up through them.
The rain came down steadily. Bal arched his neck and pulled on the bridle a bit, frustrated, Boromir was sure, by their slow pace. Boromir reached up and scratched under his light-grey mane. “I know, Bal. You and I are both out of our element here. You long to fly over the green plains of Rohan, and I to be on the battlements of my White City. But we are old campaigners, you and I.”
Old campaigners. Was he on a campaign that would help Gondor, or was he on a fool’s errand? Should he have stayed to command the forces that were all that stood between Minas Tirith and the growing darkness? He was, after all, the Captain-General of her armies. Had he deserted her in her hour of greatest need? That, at least, is what Faramir had almost implied during their last bitter meeting.
They had said their farewells the night before, or so he thought. Faramir seemed at last to have accepted the roles that Boromir had assigned them in this. Just as when they were boys. His young brother had usually been content to accept whatever role he, as elder, had assigned him in their games. Usually, he smiled slightly to himself, that of defeated enemy or trusted counselor. Boromir always claimed the role of victorious warrior and leader of men.
Well, now he had thrust that role, coveted in their boys’ games, onto Faramir: he to take over command of Gondor’s defenses, Boromir to go alone to seek counsel that might, in the end, avail them nothing.
His brother had stepped out of the shadows beside the doorway into the courtyard of the King’s House, just as Boromir prepared to go out into the day that was beginning to dawn. Faramir’s eyes were dark, as were the circles under them.
“Please, listen to me,” he had said, his voice low and urgent. “Gondor needs you here. Our father’s strength fails, as well you know. You are her heart, and you must be her arm against evil now, as well. Let me go in your stead, I beg of you.”
Boromir stopped, at once moved and exasperated. “My reasons for going have not changed. I will not discuss it further. Faramir, I would have you here. You are an able commander. I trust you with all that I love. Do not fail me.”
“Trust?” His small, bitter laugh cut at Boromir’s heart. “Do you trust me with the elves?”
“How came you to hear of that? No, do not answer. I know too well. I did not mean it,” Boromir had said, somewhat desperately. “'Tis just that the journey is dangerous, uncertain. I will not risk your life on what may be a fool’s errand.”
“Which of us is the fool?” Faramir’s voice was still quiet, but intense. “You leave the City to a commander who is not as seasoned or as well-beloved as the old. Is it not true? And I have more experience in the wilds than you. I am the better tracker. Boromir, this makes no sense.” He reached out a hand, in plea or friendship.
Boromir took the hand in both of his, but said firmly, “It does to me, and the decision is mine. If I am Gondor’s heart, Faramir, you are its intellect. She needs that now, full as much as heart; our father needs it more.”
His brother looked at him for a long moment, his eyes accusing him of that which remained unsaid. Then Faramir withdrew his hand, turned, and left without a word.
Suddenly, Bal stumbled, a hoof sinking into a hole hidden by mud and water. Thrown forward onto the horse’s neck, Boromir shifted to try to help him steady himself, then reined him in. He dismounted and bent to feel down along the animal’s leg. Bal nudged his back gently with his nose.
“Just a moment,” Boromir addressed him softly. He leaned against the flank, making the horse shift his weight so that he could better probe for possible damage. Satisfied that he had taken no injury, Boromir placed the hoof back on the ground. Straightening, he wiped his muddy hands on his cloak. He slapped Bal’s dappled flank lightly and said, “No harm done, but we’ll walk for a while.” So forward they went, down the broken road and through the marshy patches, Boromir’s boots squelching as he walked.
He looked around him at the flat fens: no trees, no shelter, no clean water. Then, on the horizon, he saw something rising above the flatness. Stonework sticking up into the sky. “Let’s see what’s up ahead,” he said, stopping and remounting. Within an hour’s time, he could make out a broad river and what looked like ruins on the shore. “By all rights, my fine friend, that should be Tharbad,” he said with relief. At last, a landmark.
Another hour and he and Bal stood looking at what had been the ruins of an enormous stone bridge. Its flanks still stood tall on either bank, but the huge stones of the span had fallen into the river. The water swirled and eddied around them, making a white spray of rapids across the length of the river. Boromir dismounted while he gauged the crossing. Bal cropped at some stunted bushes to the side of the road. Low grasses and vines grew among the ruins of what had once been a settlement that looked as if it had been deserted for centuries.
The stones and rapids made the crossing look treacherous. Days of rain had swelled the river far up its banks. Looking up and down its length, he saw no better alternatives. Rain fell steadily.
Boromir walked over to his horse and gathered up the reins that were trailing loosely on the ground. Bal lifted his nose from the bushes and pushed at Boromir’s chest. “Yes, I want to go on as much as you do. No help for it; we’ll cross here.” He remounted and looked out over the river.
As far away from home as he had felt before, somehow he felt that in crossing the Greyflood he would leave the world he knew behind. Weeks had already passed since he had left Minas Tirith. What was happening at home? What awaited him on the other side? He guided Bal slowly into the water.
It was even deeper than he had feared. The currents swirled fast around the horse’s legs. He grasped the saddle tightly between his knees and loosened his hold on the bridle, letting Bal try to find his own footing. As they approached the middle of the river, the water rose past Boromir’s feet and was still rising, swift and flecked with white.
Suddenly, the bottom seemed to drop out from beneath them. The water was up to Bal’s neck as he struggled to swim out of the currents that pulled at them in two different directions at once. Boromir lost the stirrups in the swirling water, and he felt himself losing his grip on the saddle. Cursing, he reached for Bal's mane, but the water swiftly and inexorably pulled him away. Weighted down by a leather surcoat and mail, he sank beneath the surface of the river.
He woke, choking. What had happened? He tried to sit up and get his bearings, but his eyes were watering. He could not get his breath. Then he felt a gentle touch on his heaving back. “There now, sir, best to get it all up. Here’s a basin.”
He reached for it gratefully, coughing up water and mucus, mixed with some blood, into the waiting bowl. He lay back down again, shuddering and weak, his throat raw. At his eye level he saw a white sheet on which he seemed to be resting. At its edge were two small brown hands, still holding the basin. He coughed again, then drew a breath. He lifted his head a fraction and saw, attached to the brown hands, a small, brown-skinned…man? Boromir was not sure.
“What is this place? What happened?” He was shocked by the weakness of his own voice.
“You was almost drownded, sir, not two hours past. Seen your horse go down with you, did me and Jeth. We was out fishing near the ford when we seen you tryin’ to cross. "‘Bless me, Morby,’ says he, ‘but that fool…' beggin’ your pardon, sir… 'but that Man don’t ought to be crossin’ today, what with the rain like we’ve had and not knowin’ the river as I’m sure he don’t.’”
Just then another spasm of coughing took Boromir. He reached for the basin.
When he woke again, he was able to breathe a bit more easily. The pounding in his head had not gone away, and his chest felt as if something large and ungainly had sat upon it for a considerable time. His chest felt tight, and he looked down to see white strips of cloth bound tightly around his torso. The same strips covered his left wrist. Well, thank the Valar he hadn’t damaged his sword arm.
He lifted the sheet over the rest of him to see what other damage he could discern. His legs seemed all right, though they had several large bruises over their length. But where were his breeches? He tried to stretch out his legs to test them, but found that, although his legs were free of pain, the bed was much too short for his entire length.
Grasping a stubby, but sturdy-looking, post at the head of the bed, he pulled himself up. He swung his legs over the edge, grasped the sheet around himself and stood up. He promptly crumpled to the floor, his head swimming alarmingly.
He had to get himself up and out of here. He still did not know where he was. Although the little person he remembered from whenever it was before seemed harmless enough, who knew but that the servants of the Enemy could appear in innocent guise. He put a hand out on the rough wooden floor, and began to slowly lift himself up again. As he did, the door opened. He looked up to see... Morby?… was that what he had said his name was? Now that he could see more clearly, he was sure this was not a Man, but something else entirely.
He was quite short, perhaps a bit under five feet tall. That certainly explained the bed. He was slightly built and bent, with wrinkled dark-brown skin. His grey hair was as short and sleek as an otter’s pelt; his eyes were sharp and hazel-bright, like trees reflected in a sun-dappled river. Boromir blinked. He had never seen such a creature before. As Morby reached out to help him regain the side of the bed, Boromir saw that his fingers were slightly webbed where they met his hands. Where in the name of Eru was he?
“Where am I? Where is my sword?” Boromir demanded. The goblins inside his head hammered away, and he closed his eyes, hoping the pain and dizziness would pass.
“Over there with your other things,” said Morby in a low, quiet voice. He’s humouring me, Boromir thought, soothed in spite of his determination to keep his wits about him. He opened his eyes, and found that, from his position sitting on the edge of the bed, they were on a level with Morby’s.
“There now.” Morby patted his knee, seemingly with approval that his charge was content to sit still for a moment. “Me and Jeth and Silla got you out of your wet things as best we could and quite a job we had of it, beggin’ your honor’s pardon, but you’re a tall one and no mistake, and you had on a good few layers what with that mail and leather and all. Jeth thought you was going to sink like a stone before we could get to you. We got you out, though, and he fetched a handcart. We loaded you up, and some of the lads helped us bring you here.”
The ford. Boromir remembered now. The river had been much swifter and much deeper than expected. He remembered Bal struggling, the water suddenly up to his neck. In spite of his best efforts, the current had swept him off the horse and into the water. He couldn’t remember what happened after that.
“My horse? Did you see…?”
“Yes, sir, we saw him. You got swept up against some rocks and went under, and he got pushed further downstream before he could get out. You didn’t come up, and by the time we got to where you was… well, it was just the two of us. He got out right enough, on the far bank. It took us a while to get you breathing and back here. One of the lads went back, but your horse weren’t nowhere to be seen.”
Boromir felt tears well up in his eyes, and he blinked them back in embarrasment. He had grown to love that big animal. They had developed a real bond during their quest together. He had trusted Balaróf as much, or more, than many of the soldiers under his command. He and Bal had seemed to fit together, somehow. They understood one another. He felt he had failed to guard Théodred’s generous gift, had brought him into the wilderness and lost him. He bowed his head, feeling exhausted and ashamed.
Morby patted his knee again. “There was nothing you could have done, sir. The river’s that trecherous at times. He didn’t seem to be hurt; he just didn’t know where you were. Like as not, he’s gone back to his stable, wherever that may be. He looked to be a strong one.” Boromir looked down at the small brown hand still on his knee.
Then he met Morby’s eyes again. “I thank you for my rescue. I am grateful for what you have done for me, but I must be on my way. Could you bring me my things?”
Suddenly a little brown-skinned woman, grey hair scraped back in a bun and a determined expression on her wrinkled face, entered the room. She must have been listening just outside the door.
“Now, sir, you just lay yourself back down there. You can’t have your clothes. They’re still soaking wet. I’ve not had the time to get them dry. Besides which you’re coughing up blood, which ain’t to be wondered at considering the way you got banged up on them rocks before they could haul you out. Like as not you’ve broken a rib, or more than one. And there’s a nasty bump on your head. I’ve called for the healer to see to you. So you just lie back and don’t fuss so.”
Boromir stiffened at this assault and opened his mouth to assert his authority over the situation. Something in this small lady’s voice and manner, however, brought to mind his old nurse Glenneth. He closed his mouth and felt a smile begin to tug at its corners.
“There now,” she said, smiling back. Because she knows she’s won, he thought. She came up to the bed, fluffed his pillow and patted it invitingly.
“Might as well do as she says, sir. Don’t do no good to contradict her, as I’ve learned.”
Boromir obediently lay back, wincing as the pain in his side caught at him.
“My name is Silla,” said the small figure, “and I’ll bring you some of my broth straight away. You need to get something warm in you.”
Boromir detested broth. “No, I thank you…” he began. She pursed her lips and went to get it.
After he had drunk the broth, which was actually not bad, Silla rewarded his good behavior by allowing Morby to stay and talk with him while they waited for Gath, the local healer.
Boromir was still unsettled by encountering a type of being he had never heard of before, much less seen. He should have paid more attention to Faramir’s beloved legends, perhaps they were in there somewhere. Their short stature called to mind the voice from his dream. One of its mysteries was a reference to a “halfling” that seemed to have some role to play in this time of doom. They stood more than half his own
height, but could they somehow be the halflings in his dream?
“Morby, who are your people? Have you ever been called ‘halflings’?”
“Halflings? No, sir, though now that I’ve seen you, I understand all the talk of Men being big, clumsy creatures… beggin’ your pardon. You’re the first one many of the lads had seen, although we knew straight off what you was. We’re just the River Folk, leastwise that’s what we’ve always called ourselves. There aren’t many of us left along the rivers, but we’ve been here a long time. We keep ourselves to ourselves, and don’t hold much with reading and writing, so you may never have heard of us. We don’t travel much; we’re content with what the river brings us. We didn’t even stay this close to the ford back in the days when Men used it. But few Men pass through here now, and we’re not seen unless we want to be.”
“Then I’m doubly grateful that you were there at the ford and managed to get me out. I am in your debt.”
Just then, they heard a knock at the door. The healer had come. Gath looked very much like Morby, but even more bent and wrinkled. He eyes were just as bright, however, and his hands were firm but gentle. After a thorough and painful probing, Boromir was pale. The healer squeezed his shoulder in understanding, and said lightly, “Well, you’re the biggest thing Morby ever pulled out of the river and no mistake. You’ve two broken ribs, a sprained wrist, and a bad bump on the head that’s a bit worrying. I think that’s all, and if it is you’re a lucky one.”
“When…” began Boromir.
“You’d be best to stay here a few days, at least until I’m sure you’re not coughing up blood anymore and the bump on your head is nothing worse than that. I’ve given Silla a poultice for your chest and some tea. If the poultice and the tea do their work, you’ll not develop an inflammation of the lung and won’t be in bed for a month.”
“Not if you do what Silla says.” Gath looked at him sternly, as if daring him to call for his clothes again.
Boromir felt frustrated, grateful, and managed, all at once. “Thank you,” was all he could think of to say.
Gath gave his shoulder a parting pat in approval. Boromir felt ten years old again and was surprised to find it a strangely comforting feeling.
Silla came in with a cup of pungent tea. After sipping obediently at the loathsome brew, he found the most comfortable position he could in the too-short bed and fell into a dreamless sleep.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.